William Tell, a hero of Swiss folklore, became a symbol of Switzerland's national pride and independence. He is best known for shooting an arrow through an apple sitting on his son's head.
Tell's feat of archery supposedly took place around 1300, when Switzerland was under Austrian rule. The independent-minded Tell refused to salute an Austrian official, who then ordered Tell to take the nerve-wracking shot. Afterward, the official spotted a second arrow. Tell said that if his first arrow had missed, he would have used the second one to kill the official. As punishment, Tell was sent to prison, but he escaped and killed the Austrian official. This act inspired the rebellion that eventually ended Austrian rule in Switzerland. Some accounts name Tell a leader in that fight.
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
William Tell first appeared in legends and songs of the 1400s. By the 1700s, various Swiss histories featured the story. The play Wilhelm Tell (1804) by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller brought the Swiss hero to world attention, as did the opera Guillaume Tell (1829) by Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini. Despite these works, however, there is no historical evidence that William Tell existed, although the stories about him may have been based on a kernel of reality. The famous test of marksmanship, with a cherished life at stake, is similar to stories from Norse* and British folklore.
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